Your child can say something to you, just one small thing, and suddenly the universe expands. One evening I walked with Matthew to the library and back. He was about to turn five. I see him then. He wears small, round glasses. He is an impatient person, eager to cut to the chase, a detector of dissembling. He is beginning to connect the dots of the universe.
“Look, Dad,” he said. “The moon is a sliver.”
We were on a nighttime adventure, a four-year-old’s favorite kind of adventure.
Walking alone at night with your child is when the truth comes out, like the stars.
“Dad, the moon is really the sun, and it’s out all the time,” he announced with authority.
I stopped and looked up. I explained to him that the moon is not the sun but is lit by the sun, which is … look behind those trees, just over the dark horizon, where we cannot see the sun because the world is curved and round. In that dark, I could feel that Matthew’s eyes were big. His breathing had changed. Two crescents of light were reflected in his glasses.
He seemed to accept this version of reality. We walked on for a while, carrying our bags of books.
“Look, Dad, the stars are out.”
“Yes, they are.”
“Um … Dad … I want to tell you something.”
“The stars are following us.”
And they were. We moved, they moved. I had not noticed or remembered this phenomenon since I was a child.
In his small voice, Matthew said, “The stars are watching us …”
“ … and Dad,” he explained, “the stars are faeries.”
I did not offer an alternative explanation. His was better than any I could muster. He had cut me loose from the earth.
I wonder if fathers in any other time kept track of what their children taught them in these moments.
Our culture has little patience with fathers who dote on moments.
Publishers market memory books, in pastels, to mothers: this is when the baby was born, these were my first thoughts, this is when the baby took his or her first step, and this is how I felt in my heart. It seems to be the province of mothers to keep the scrapbooks and records.
I did buy a video camera. But like most fathers, I prefer to stay behind the lens, and that is where I usually end up.
A few months after my father’s death, as a kind of lone late-night wake, I pulled out a box of eight-millimeter films.
I opened the box and smelled his cigarette smoke. I gingerly removed the gray metal canisters and spooled the film onto the projector, one of his prized possessions.
Clear images moved across the wall—our dog bounding across time, my irritated little brother waving toilet paper, the morning light filling the kitchen, passing clouds carrying the embryos of tornadoes.
All these small moments: my young mother smiling and waving her hand in frustration; my elderly aunt’s lumbering Chrysler; my grandmother in the lacy black dress favored by older women of that time; a friend and I at seven carrying a flag through a field of brittle cornstalks, moving away until only the flag could be seen like the sail of a ship heading out to sea.
In all of this footage I never saw my father.
Only once was there a glimpse, during a backyard picnic as the Missouri wind caught paper plates and Aunt Mary’s hairpiece. There, on the concrete wall of the walk-out basement, behind my mother and brother, was the shadow. It was the shape of a man who still had his hair, a silhouetted pompadour. The shadow was holding a camera.
I wish I could see him in these movies. I wish I could see him.
Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of eight books, including “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual World.” This piece originally appeared in his book “FatherLove,” and as part of an essay in Companions in Wonder.
Photos © R. Louv
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